Garden hedges using native, wildlife-friendly plants

The weather is a bit windy, wet and wintry here at the moment and maybe the very last thing you are thinking about is the state of your garden.  But if you had been considering a revamp of the garden perimeter with a bit of new planting during the course of last year then you need to know that now is the perfect time of year for planting a new hedge.

It’s time to take action because we are currently in the dormant season for deciduous trees and shrubs and this means that there are plenty of low cost bare-root plant materials available from our garden centres and nurseries for hedge planting.  This is especially true if it is a native plant hedge that you are thinking of planting.

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Whitethorn blossom in May (image from Hawk Conservancy Trust, UK)

What is a native hedgerow?

These are hedges that are composed of plant species that have grown naturally in the wild landscape of the place in which they are being planted (for thousands of years). These plants tend to be highly adapted to the environment  in which they are found so they are tough, resilient, and a safe bet if you are not in to high maintenance gardening.  So, in Ireland, the most commonly planted hedgerow plant on farmland across the country is a native plant called Whitethorn (also know as Hawthorn or Sceach geal in Irish) or Crataegus monogyna to use its full botanical name.  It forms a neat, thorny, stock proof hedge and grows from one end of the country to the other.  This plant can also contribute a lot of value to a mixed garden hedge.

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Mature (unmaintained) mixed native hedgerow forming a field boundary

There are upwards of thirty tree and shrub species common to hedgerows in the UK and Ireland so there are plenty to choose from.  Other native plants that are suitable for planting in to a hedge include Hazel (Corylus avellana), Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus), Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and Spindle (Euonymus europaeus).  Many of these plants are woodland edge species and that is why they are also useful in hedgerow conditions where they jostle communally with each other for space, light and nutrients.  A useful native evergreen plant is Holly Ilex aquifolium.  Whilst slow growing this forms a thorny, dense hedge that gives full screening.

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NAtive Holly can be used as part of a mixed hedge or on its own to crete a strong evergreen barrier

If you want to include tree species in your hedge (allowing then to grow as standards) then you could think about Oak (Quercus robur or Quercus petraea) , Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) or Cherry (Prunus avium).

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A mixed hedgerow that has been pruned to shape is both practical and still of value to garden wildlife (image from Dorset Design and Build)

Your native hedgerow can be kept trimmed to a particular height and width just like an ornamental hedge but they often look better when they are let go a bit.  They are also of better wildlife value if managed in this way.  I personally have a small garden and my hedgerow is a mix of ornamental and native species.  Mine is relaxed and left to grow long and wild (a bit like my hair!) so it takes up some valuable room in the garden but I wouldn’t have it any other way as it gives so much year round interest.  It could equally be cut to shape if required.  Even better is to use the traditional technique of hedgelaying to manage your hedge (see image below – more on this soon!).

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Traditional hedgelaying in Surrey as conducted by The Urban Countryman (check out his blog for more country craft information)

I am in favour of using native plants to form a hedgerow wherever possible.  The reasons are:

1) They tend to be hardy and easy to establish.

2) They look good with a nice mix of foliage and flowers spread over the year.

3) They are very good for contributing to biodiversity as they support a host of insect and bird-life.

Furthermore, there are hundreds of native plants that associate with hedgerows.  So if you have room and are keen to “go-native” you can look to establish a species rich ground flora associated with your hedge that will also be excellent for wildlife.

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